Kevin McPherson: Which Hogs Show Up, When?



Hogs win 4 in a row, but does anybody recognize who or what this team is?

The Bubble was getting flimsy and thin for the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team after two ugly losses at Missouri and against Vanderbilt at home a couple of weeks ago, and it looked like it was finally going to burst, once and for all, in the first half against LSU on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge.

The Hogs looked listless, lethargic, and were routinely getting beat defensively as the Tigers were getting easy layups and dunks en route to building a 14-point lead. Arkansas fought back in the closing minutes of the first half to get into the locker room down only 9, 40-31. And what happened inside those doors at halftime simply, but magically, may have saved the Hogs’ season.

Three words: Matchup zone defense.

Arkansas, which has been a solid offensive team all season, was struggling to consistently defend in Mike Anderson’s preferred man, full-, and half-court scramble schemes. Teams had been torturing the Hogs too often by forcing switches on pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets that pulled Moses Kingsley away from the paint and left too many undersized guards trying to defend the post, not to mention the problems it created on closing out on shooters and cutting off penetration.

LSU was having its way, but the switch to the matchup zone in the second half was an instant fix-all against the Tigers because it masked/protected some of the weaker perimeter on-ball defenders, and it forced center Moses Kingsley to stay in touch with the action in the paint, where he is most effective.

The Razorbacks came alive, outscoring LSU 47-30 in the second half to snap their 2-game skid with a 78-70 SEC road victory. Their Bubble was still intact, and now fast-forward three more games — an 83-76 win over then-No. 19 South Carolina on the road, a 98-80 thrashing of Ole Miss at home, and a hard-fought 86-77 win over Texas A&M at home — and the Hogs are 21-7 overall and 10-5 in the SEC with an RPI of No. 35 … and alas, the Hogs are OFF the NCAA tournament Bubble for now, at least according to famed ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who on Thursday projected the Hogs as a 10-seed if the season ended today.

Riding a 4-game winning streak, Arkansas has gone 9-2 in SEC play since stumbling out of the gates 1-3. The Hogs are 5-2 on the road in the SEC, and 5-3 at home in league games. All which make the recent back-to-back ugly losses to Mizzou and Vandy seem like a distant bad dream. With three more regular-season games — at Auburn, at No. 12 Florida, and Georgia — and a guarantee of at least one game in the SEC tournament, it appears as though Arkansas’s “magic number” is 3 (maybe 2 get’s it done, but 3 would make them a lock). So, 2 or 3 more wins in the next 4 or 5 games should be enough to earn an at-large bid when the NCAAT selection committee announces the field on Selection Sunday (March 12).

Getting there won’t be easy. Yes, the Hogs have won 5 of 7 SEC road games, but in each one of those Ws they’ve had a steep climb to victory after falling behind by at least 12 points. Home games have been a roller-coaster as well. The Hogs looked slow and low on energy in losses to Florida, Mississippi State, and Vandy. Then, they looked like world-beaters against Alabama and Ole Miss. And in their most-recent home game — against the Aggies on Wednesday — the Hogs showed they could scrap, battle, and hold onto a small lead in a tight game and emerge with a win.

From this vantage point, the Hogs must continue to mix in the matchup zone defense with their man and pressing / trapping schemes, while continuing to share the ball on offense. As good as the guard play has been most of the season — that and the bench being the strengths of this Arkansas team as noted over and over in this space — the fate of the Hogs’ postseason has always rested on the capable shoulders of preseason SEC Player of the Year pick Moses Kingsley.

In addition to the zone defense keeping him inside, Kingsley has taken on a new accountability — an ownership — in being a presence in the paint offensively, too, during the current 4-game win streak. I asked Mike Anderson directly about this “inside Moses” compared to “perimeter Moses” just after the Hogs’ dismantling of Ole Miss last Saturday.

“We got the old Moses back,” Anderson answered. “He’s doing all the things that garnered him all the (preseason) attention. I think that’s what you’re seeing now. He’s doing all the blue-collar kind of stuff.”

Kingsley, little by little, had become more of a face-up, perimeter big over the course of the season, which partly explains why his rebounding and scoring saw significant dips from a year ago in his breakout campaign as a junior. Kingsley averages 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game on the season, but all those numbers went up during the current 4-game win streak (12.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks).

And Kingsley is getting help on the frontline. Junior Trey Thompson made some huge plays at both ends of the floor to help the Hogs to victory at South Carolina, then he followed that up with his best game as a Hog in the blowout win over Ole Miss: 8 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals in just 23 minutes. Against the Aggies, he had 5 points, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds. Junior combo-forward Dustin Thomas has also played well the last four games: 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 steals in the road win over LSU, then he made a bunch of winning hustle plays at South Carolina. Against A&M, he had 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 steal.

The 5-deep backcourt continues to find the right combinations to get the Hogs into the victory circle. Anderson always says he has 8 or 9 starters, and his 5 veteran guards have each been a part of that carousel, in mostly a positive way.

In the last four games/wins:

* Daryl Macon scored 72 points (including a career-high 30 against Ole Miss).

* Jaylen Barford (62 points) and Dusty Hannahs (57 points) scored at all 3 levels, and they combined for 43 at South Carolina.

* Anton Beard scored 27 points (he was scoreless in limited action due to illness at South Carolina, but bounced back with 11 points and 4 assists off the bench against Ole Miss)

* Manny Watkins scored 30 points (none bigger than the 2 he scored on a shot-clock buzzer-beating heave in the final minute at South Carolina that extended a 1-point Hog lead to 3).

And if you believe good defense leads to good offense, these numbers tend to back that up: In the past 4 games, Arkansas moved the needle up compared to its season shooting efficiency percentages — 48.3% on field goals (115-of-238), 39.3% on 3-point field goals (33-of-84), and 82.8% on free throws (82-of-99). Rebounding and turnovers have been issues when the Hogs have lost, but those categories have been effectively a push or better over these past 4 games.

So, as the regular season winds down, are the Hogs starting to peak at the right time? It’s hard to tell. They started the season 11-1, then went 1-3 in their first four SEC games, then won 4 in a row before getting blown out by 28 points at Oklahoma State, then came home and had their best game of the season in a romp against Alabama at BWA, then completely face-planted against Mizzou, Vandy, and in the first-half at LSU before emerging as this team we see now that appears to be playing its best, most-consistent basketball of the season.

Enigmatic. It’s hard to recognize what this team is, and in this space I speculated before the Hogs played their first SEC game back in late December that with so many newcomers and personnel combinations, not only would the Hogs be challenged to overcome obstacles as they figured out roles and fits, but that their opponents would likely have difficulty game-planning for these Hogs. Their weakness is their strength, if that makes sense.

If you go back to the original blueprint — Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell era — the depth and unusual player combinations were stealth in the way they took opponents down, especially at the end of games. We see that with this team, too. They fall behind by double-figures, but somehow they manufacture the right combinations in-game to come out the other side victorious.

Hog fans have been on an uncomfortable roller-coaster all season trying to figure out who and what this team is, when in truth the best thing about these Hogs just might be the mystery. Who are these Razorbacks? That’s what you want Hog opponents puzzling over and worrying about deep into March!

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.


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